We met this past August: six of 42 American University freshmen selected to participate in the School of Public Affairs' Leadership Program. We were tasked with identifying a social issue connected to gender and sexuality and working to change it. After two months of intense, sass-filled discussions, we zeroed in on an issue that we all felt needed to be changed: the Food and Drug Administration's policy that bans men who have had sex with men (MSM) even once since 1977 from ever donating blood. Enacted in 1985 at the height of the AIDS scare, this measure was deemed necessary by confused scientists and puzzled politicians. Today, however, it is outdated and unreasonable. It is difficult to resist concluding that the continuation of this policy is the result of homophobic stereotypes.
In order to fully understand the ban and the issues stemming from it, we first assembled a policy memorandum that examined all sides of the policy. We learned how blood is tested for HIV and that with current technologies, there is a 1 in 1.5 million chance of infected blood passing through the screening processes. We also learned that the United States is in the midst of a critical blood shortage, which America's Blood Centers states would end if we increased the annual blood supply by just 1 percent. In 2010 the Williams Institute at the University of California's Los Angeles School of Law estimated that if the MSM blood ban were lifted, there would be approximately 219,000 additional pints annually, an increase of 1.4 percent. This means we could increase the lives saved by blood donations each year by up to 657,000 (given that one pint donated can save as many as three lives) and eliminate blood shortages for the foreseeable future. Also in 2010 a group of 18 United States Senators, including John Kerry (D-Mass.) and Kristen Gillibrand (D-N.Y.), advocated that the FDA change its policy, to no avail. Keeping this knowledge in mind throughout the fall semester, we became further impassioned by the need for reform. We forged relations with nearby organizations such as the D.C. Center for the LGBT Community, and with nearby college campuses. Finally, spring semester arrived, and the hands-on action commenced: it was time to start our project.
Our three-point plan is comprised of education, awareness, and political action. We established ourselves as Red Is in the Rainbow. Through social media websites such as Facebook and Twitter, we are spreading the word about the blood ban and facts pertaining to it. To make a personal impact, we will be hosting blood drives across Washington, D.C. this April. To bring awareness to how many people are prevented from donating blood, we will be distributing stickers stating, "I have a friend who can't donate blood. Ask me why," and "I can't donate blood. Ask me why." We hope that these will encourage discussion of the discriminatory policy and further spread the word. Finally, we aspire to put political pressure on the FDA to change its policy. By coordinating a letter campaign, we seek to communicate to policy makers just how much harm this ban inflicts and put forward an alternative we believe more appropriate: a one-year waiting period between male-to-male sexual contact and blood donation, the same waiting period that a person who has sex with a prostitute or a person infected with HIV/AIDS must undergo. A one-year deferral period has become the choice of most other industrialized nations who have amended their policies, the most recent of which was the United Kingdom.
Throughout the past six months, we have run into numerous obstacles. People simply do not know this policy exists. We hope to spread knowledge of the policy through our social networking and media attention. Beyond that, our age has not always led to a vote of confidence. Many do not have confidence that six college freshmen can change public policy that has been in effect for over 25 years. But we are determined to see a result from our effort, and we are confident that we can control the dynamics of change.
If you would like to learn more about Red Is in the Rainbow and be kept up to date with information on our blood drives, please "Like" the Facebook page, follow @redintherainbow on Twitter, or visit redisintherainbow.com. To sign a petition calling for the FDA to end the lifetime blood ban, click here.